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For a long time, a debate has raged over which in-bath cleaning option is best. The most popular choices include shower gel, body wash and old faithful, the bar of soap. The honest truth is that the best soap for you is all about your personal preference. There’s no right answer, and it generally comes down to what and how you want to clean yourself.
For anyone on the fence about his choice of cleaning method, there are several reasons for using soap bars over other washing methods. You’ll find many soap solids are more eco-friendly than other washing options. That’s because most use non-plastic packaging. And, their small size makes soap bars easy to throw in your wash bag for weekends away, long-term travel and gym visits, too.
If you wash your hands, body or face with something too harsh and drying, it’s going to lead to rough patches of skin and probably some hangnails, cracked knuckles and a breakout or two. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself on what makes the best bar soap for men (and for all people, really), and then shop according to those parameters.
But those parameters might surprise you. For example, while we’d love to tell you to only shop for soaps with high-quality, all-natural ingredients (honoring nearly 5,000 years of soap-making traditions), the truth is there are plenty of terrific synthetic bar soaps that do the job even better than most natural formulas. (Turns out, science is pretty incredible!) On top of that, some of the best naturally derived bar soaps deploy synthetic ingredients to help cleanse.
Ultimately, the lines get blurry between what is natural and synthetic but read on and we’ll clear things up a bit as to why. We’ll also address the best ingredients in bar soap, as well as our picks for the 15 best bar soaps for men.
Natural vs. Synthetic (Syndet) Bar Soap
Synthetic bar soaps are typically called syndet bars, for “synthetic detergent.” We spoke with Dr. Heather Rogers on the subject. She is a co-founder and dermatologist at Modern Dermatology in Seattle and the founder of Doctor Rogers RESTORE skincare.
First, if you want to be technical, syndet bars are not exactly soap, says Rogers. “We use soap and syndet interchangeably because they both lather and clean, but they are not the same.”
She notes that soap, which was around as early as 2800 BC, is “made from plant oils or animal fat, mixed with lye (sodium hydroxide), originally from wood ash mixed with water.” It’s important to add, though, that most natural soaps have a highly alkaline/basic pH level (as great as 10 on the 1-14 scale, whereas skin is more acidic, in the 5 range). Because of this, traditional soap can be quite irritating and drying to skin.
Detergent, on the other hand, was a 20th-century innovation when shortages of soap ingredients during WWI accelerated the development of synthetic alternatives. And with that innovation came many new benefits. “What is nice about detergents is they can include a broad range of other ingredients that cannot be added to soap because of soap’s high pH level,” Rogers says. “This includes surfactants that help water remove dirt and grease more effectively because of its bipolar (hydrophilic and lipophilic) nature. Also, detergents are free-rinsing (they don’t leave a residue) while soap requires a water wash after or it will leave a film.”
So what you’re likely using is a syndet bar (and possibly one with many natural ingredients) — though there are some excellent soaps that are mindful of your pH levels. But it’s important to embrace the advancement of synthetic cleansers, Rogers believes. “Studies have shown that syndet cleansing bars are generally milder than soap-based products, likely related in part to less basic pH and help maintain the structural integrity and moisture of the skin’s outermost layer, the stratum corneum.”
What to Look for in a Bar Soap
Since the lines are blurred on what is natural and what is synthetic, it’s smart to take an ingredients-focused approach to your bar-soap search. Rogers frames her advice around bar soaps that are also face-friendly, meaning they won’t irritate more fragile skin nor cause breakouts. And in general, if it’s good for your face, then it’s good for the entire body (but the reverse is not always true).
Universally Good Ingredients to Look for in Bar Soap
“If you are washing your face with a bar cleanser, these are high-quality ingredients to look for,” Rogers says.
- Olive Oil: Highly nourishing and hydrating.
- Jojoba Oil: Moisturizing, softening and soothing.
- Glycerin: Softens skin and traps moisture inside.
- Shea Butter: Rich in fatty acids, shea butter softens skin and also protects (by keeping environmental toxins from entering). Some acne-prone individuals might find it slightly clogging on pores.
- Squalane: Reduces inflammation and traps moisture in the skin.
- Charcoal: Extremely detoxifying cleanser, but can be drying, Rogers says. It’s especially good for oily skin.
- Kaolin: Same as above; pore-clearing cleanser that is especially good for oily skin.
- Gentle Surfactants: The best are sodium cocoyl isethionate and betaine.
Universally Bad Ingredients to Avoid in Bar Soap
And with the good comes the bad. Here are three universally bad ingredients for bar soap, specifically when washing the face.
- Synthetic Fragrances: Many bar soaps have a natural fragrance due to certain oils that have been added. You want to avoid artificial scents, though, as well as irritating natural oils. The biggest red flags, Rogers says, are limonene, linalool, sandalwood and citrus oils.
- Coloring: Artificial dyes can be irritating to skin. If you think your preferred soap might have synthetic coloring, you can always spot-test on your skin to see if you experience any adverse reactions. (Same with fragrant soaps.) If anything, avoid using them on your face.
- Manual Exfoliators: For the face, specifically. Think seeds, nuts, oatmeal etc. These gritty bars are ok for the body, however.
Best Bar Soap Ingredients for Acne-Prone and Dry Skin
It also helps to frame your search around your own skin needs. For more insight on the best ingredients in bar soaps for acne-prone and dry skin, we spoke with Dr. Dendy Engelman, the dermatologist at Shafer Clinic in NYC.
Best bar-soap ingredients for acne-prone skin: “Salicylic acid is a great ingredient to clean out blocked pores and remove excess oil that often creates breakouts,” Engelman says. “Benzoyl peroxide is antimicrobial, meaning that it kills the bacteria that often causes acne to form, so this is one to look out for as well. (Just make sure to rinse off the soap thoroughly, as these ingredients can be harsh and irritating to skin if left on. Moisturize with a hydrating but non-occlusive moisturizer after your shower to soothe the skin and further prevent irritation!)”
Bar-soap ingredients to avoid if you have acne-prone skin: “Fragrance, parabens and sulfates can all be irritating, especially to a compromised skin barrier,” she says. “Cocoa butter, coconut oil and shea butter may be too comedogenic for those with an oily skin type, so I’d recommend avoiding them and opt for lighter, non-comedogenic hydrating ingredients instead (like hyaluronic acid, squalane, ceramides, peptides, etc).”
Best bar-soap ingredients for dry skin: “Hyaluronic acid helps retain water in the skin by binding collagen to moisture; it can hold up to a thousand times its weight in water,” says Engelman. Ceramides are made up of fatty acids that create a barrier around your skin to hold skin cells together and lock in moisture, so they’re great for supporting a healthy and hydrated skin barrier, too.”
Worst bar-soap ingredients for dry skin: “Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is found in several detergents but tends to dry out skin. Soaps with fragrances also have a drying effect which can irritate the skin,” she says, echoing Dr. Rogers’ sentiments.
Best Exfoliation Ingredients in Bar Soaps
While you should avoid using gritty exfoliating bar soaps on your face, it is perfectly common to scrub your body down with one. Secondly, some bar soaps offer chemical exfoliation (like those targeting acne-prone skin), which can typically be used on the body and face. Here are Dr. Engelman’s two cents on which physical and chemical exfoliation ingredients to look out for, should you want a bar soap that also doubles as an exfoliating agent.
Best means of physical exfoliation in a bar soap: “I usually don’t recommend physical exfoliants, as they tend to be too abrasive to skin [especially on the face],” says Engelman. “If you must use a physical exfoliant, look for jojoba beads, since they are natural and less harsh on skin, and dissolve after exfoliating. Other natural physical exfoliants include oatmeal, sea salt, coffee or brown sugar.”
Best means of chemical exfoliation in a bar soap: “For someone with dry, sensitive skin, lactic acid is a great chemical exfoliant because it brightens, smooths and evens skin while remaining gentle,” she explains. “For someone with more oily, acne-prone skin, salicylic acid works well to remove excess sebum and help control sebum production, so it’s great for unclogging pores while it exfoliates.”
The Best Bar Soap for Men
Here are our 15 picks for the best bar soaps for men, broken into five categories based on different skin types and needs.
The Best Bar Soaps for Oily Skin
1. Dr. Squatch Fresh Falls Zero Grit Bar Soap
Oily skin types will appreciate the pore-cleansing powers of kaolin clay, while shea butter and coconut oil leave skin soft (and also boost its moisture-trapping barrier function). Note that acne-prone types might find it comedogenic due to the latter two ingredients.
2. Art of Sport Charcoal Activated Tea Tree Soap for Hands, Face, and Body
Art of Sport, as you can wager, targets athletes. And athletes are among our sweatiest humans. So if this bar soap is good enough to purify their pores and calm their skin, then it’s also perfect for your oily pores — no matter how physically active you may be.
3. Brickell Purifying Charcoal Bar Soap
Charcoal extracts oil and grime from deep within the pores, while olive and coconut oils nurture the skin. Tea tree oil neutralizes bacteria, while peppermint oil tingles and purifies skin and adds an invigorating scent. (Please note that this is not an exfoliating soap, even if the Amazon description implies it. Secondly, it should be avoided on the face in acne-prone types, due to its coconut oil formula.)
The Best Bar Soaps for Acne-Prone Skin
1. Marlowe Charcoal Face and Body Bar Soap No. 106
Charcoal is known for its purifying, deep-cleaning prowess, and this bar soap from Marlowe adds acne-alleviating willow bark to the mix. (That’s where salicylic acid comes from.) Its light shea butter formula should be fine on pores, especially considering the heavy lifting the other two key ingredients are doing.
2. Katialis Sulfur-Zinc Oxide-Salicylic Acid Antibacterial/Antifungal Bar Soap
The antimicrobial, oil-expunging trio of salicylic acid, zinc oxide and sulfur make for one potent acne-fighting bar soap. It’s also effective on other fungal outbreaks (like jock itch or athlete’s foot), or even on dandruff-prone domes.
Katialis Sulfur-Zinc Oxide-Salicylic Acid Antibacterial/Antifungal Bar Soap
3. 111MedCo 10% Benzoyl Peroxide Cleansing Bar
Benzoyl is one of acne’s biggest foes, and this bar packs it in droves. It can tackle facial acne as well as the more tedious breakouts that span your chest and back. (Remember to use white towels when using benzoyl, since it can “bleach” your fabrics.)
The Best Bar Soaps for Dry Skin
1. Dove Men+Care Body and Face Bar
Dove is known for its hydrating formula, which includes 25% moisturizing factors. This is not only one of the most affordable bar soaps on the market, but it also works effectively on face and body alike — and Dove even suggests using it as a cradling shave soap, should you be willing to try.
2. Claus Porto Musgo Real Body Soap
Is there any better modern-day soapmaker than Claus Porto? No, there is not. Their soaps make for brilliant gifts, and the brand’s Musgo Real line targets men specifically. This invigorating classic body soap is the signature in the Musgo line and packs walnut extract for added effect in an already bar-raising moisturizing formula.
3. Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Bar Soap
While these outstanding soaps may be comedogenic on acne-prone skin (due to the inclusion of coconut oil), they’re perfect for every other skin type thanks to a gentle and highly nourishing formula. Dr. Bronner’s soaps can clean everything from your floors to your butt, but with a thoughtful recipe (on both skin and environment). We love the tingling peppermint, balancing tea tree and neutral unscented bars best of all.
The Best Bar Soaps for Sensitive Skin
1. Vanicream Cleansing Bar for Sensitive Skin
A favorite for sensitive skin folk, Vanicream’s bar soap lacks the worst offenders like artificial dyes and fragrance, as well as lanolin, parabens, formaldehyde and more. The bar also nourishes and hydrates skin as it cleanses.
2. SheaMoisture African Black Soap Eczema Therapy Bar Soap
African black soap has long been known for its remedial abilities, particularly on irritable skin conditions like eczema and itching. This bar soap soothes both and protects skin’s moisture levels with the brand’s signature dose of shea butter.
3. La Roche-Posay Lipikar Surgras Cleansing Bar
A favorite of Dr. Rogers, this bar soap cushions and protects skin with shea butter and traps moisture for sustained comfort and softness. It also fortifies the skin barrier with niacinamide.
The Best Body Exfoliation Bar Soaps
1. Baxter of California Exfoliating Body Bar
This invigorating, woodsy bar soap harnesses jojoba meal and crushed olive seed for gentle buffing. Don’t use it on the face, though; as the doctors above outlined, physical exfoliating bar soaps should be relegated just to the body. (Sensitive types should avoid it for the fragrance, though it is a positively refreshing scent.)
2. Ursa Major Morning Mojo Exfoliating Bar Soap
With pulverized volcanic rock, nourishing coconut oils and invigorating oils of peppermint, eucalyptus and rosemary, this exfoliating body bar wakes up the skin like a shot of espresso (and leaves it baby smooth, no less).
3. CeraVe SA Cleanser Bar for Rough and Bumpy Skin
CeraVe’s body bar uses both salicylic acid and jojoba beads for a sense of cleanness that runs deep (and smooths at the surface, no less). And, like all of the brand’s products, it packs a trio of ceramides to fortify the skin barrier and trap moisture inside the skin.